Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Literature: The Last Cato by Matilde Asensi

Matilde Asensi’s novel, The Last Cato deals with the ancient icons of The True Cross, the first Christian Emperor Constantine and his mother, Helena, Dante Alighieri’s Purgatorio and Dante’s pagan protector of Purgatory’s terraces, Marcus Porcius Catō Uticēnsis (95 BC–46 BC), also known as Cato the Younger, from which the title is derived. As has been true with every related historical-fictional novel since Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, Asensi’s The Last Cato is crammed with historical references that while more often than not correct, are used with such poetic license that their historical worth is diminished. That is not to say that The Last Cato is not an enjoyable read, it is. It also has in its favor a unique female perspective as does Kate Mosse’s Labyrinth.

My current argument in reading this religious-intrigue fiction, supported by Stephen Prothero’s Religious Literacy - What Every American Needs to Know - and Doesn't, is that the majority of readers lack the necessary education about religion and its historical-cultural significance to fully comprehend and therefore enjoy such novels. Just a brief review of the above stated inventory presents the inquisitive reader a heady task in preparing to properly read The Last Cato. Our attention-deficient society does not demand the rigors of such study and author Asensi does not necessarily require it. However, having some idea of Church History and The Divine Comedy would be an asset.

So, in popular culture, how did we get to our fascination with the intrigue of Christianity and its origins? I don’t mean the predictable, evangelical ilk of Jerry B. Jenkins and Tim F. LaHaye’s apocalyptic yawn. I am thinking more in terms of Umberto Ecco’s fiction, such as Name of the Rose. Catholics and Non-Catholics alike cyclically have a fascination with the labyrinthine mystery that surrounds and permeates the history of Roman Catholicism. Dan Brown was not the first to take advantage of stories of myth attached to Christian theological and temporal development forged between the deaths of Sts. Peter and Paul in during the persecution of Nero and the present day. Both of Brown’s books in the genera, Angels and Demons and The Da Vinci Code deal first with secret church-related societies, The Illuminati in the former and Opus Dei. Umberto Ecco’s historically-informed Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum dealt the Roman Catholic esoterica in a densely delicious manner that required much of the reader but rewarded the same for his or her effort.

Popularly, The Da Vinci Code reintroduced the story of The Holy Grail, which was first introduced into literary lore by Chrétien de Troyes in his 12th-century epic, Perceval, le Conte du Graal (The Story of the Grail), and a bit later by Robert de Boron in his Joseph d'Arimathie. Romance was added to the story by Wolfram von Eschenbach in Parzival in the early 13th century, and the same story set to musical theater by Richard Wagner in his last opera, Parsifal, first performed in July 26, 1882. Thus, there is nothing new in the tale of the Grail. When The DaVinci Code was first published, America’s Protestant Puritan population was all a-twitter as if The Da Vinci Code were the first vehicle to entertain Jesus and Mary Magdalene’s erstwhile marriage. Much heretic blood was shed in antiquity over such theories well before there was even a printing press.

First and foremost, The Da Vinci Code stands as a breezy Summer read. Subsequent readings of the book, coupled with a bit of research on the subject (Michael Baigent, et al.’s Holy Blood, Holy Grail, Justo L. Gonzalez’s Church History: An Essential Guide and his three volume A History of Christian Thought) show the story rushed, compressed, and threadbare in places. Nevertheless, The Da Vinci Code was the father of a thousand novels devoted to antiquities, hermeneutics, and esoterica, as well as, millions of Christian sermons and homilies addressing its subject as heresy or a starting point to a dialog about Faith’s importance and/or lack thereof.

The vast majority of The Da Vinci Code’s offspring are banal at best and cultural waste at worst. Some of the better stories directly related to The Da Vinci Code include novels addressing the historical protectors of The Holy Grail - the Knights Templer: Steve Berry’s The Templar Legacy and Raymond Khoury’s The Last Templar and novels dealing with the Last Supper and the “secret” Holy Grail directly: Javier Sierra’s The Secret Supper and Kate Mosse’s superb Labyrinth. But Authors did not thankfully restrict themselves to Jesus and his ostensible family. Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason’s thinly writtenThe Sign of Four was hot off the presses after The Da Vinci Code. It is pretentiously flawed and written but did expose the provocative mystery of the 15th Century manuscript Hypnerotomachia Poliphili to light, obviously a product of the Authors’ Ivy League education. Chris Kuzneski’s The Sign of the Cross is clever but incomplete in melding the Roman Catholic gesture with a yarn about the ancestors of Pilate and their link to the Vatican. So what’s next for the genre? Well, Matilde Asensi’s The Last Cato, of course.

Asensi’s story centers on the unlikely trio of Vatican paleographer Sister Ottavia Salina, Vatican Swiss Guard Captain Kaspar Glauser-Roïst, and a Coptic Catholic archeologist, Farag Boswell. The three are brought together because of the murder of a mysterious Ethiopian man who was covered with elaborate and enigmatic tattoos. Sister Salina is called upon by Vatican potentates and Glauser-Roïst to divine the meaning of the dead man’s body art. Shady Vatican officials inform Salina that the dead Ethiopian was part of a conspiracy to steal the Ligna Crucis, pieces of The True Cross, from churches where the religious relics were kept. As the story blooms, the Holy Father charges Salina, Glauser-Roïst, and the added academic Boswell to retrieve the relics.

The story winds its way through and already well-worn path of the Vatican Library intrigue, leading to the discovery of a secret society called the Staurofilakes, who have sought The True Cross throughout history and seem to be accumulating the slivers of wood from all over the world. Glauser-Roïst, an Italian Scholar, notes that there exist clues to the Staurofilakes hidden in Dante Alighieri’s Purgatorio, the second triptych of his Divine Comedy. The three learn that Dante himself was a member of the group and hid the group’s initiation ritual in the densely written poetics of the Purgatorio, an act that earned Dante a four year exile.

The trio sets out to replicate the instructions gleaned from the Purgatorio, a process that takes them to several continents, each enduring Dante’s poetic path to perfection through the writer’s seven terraces of Purgatory, where each searcher is rendered unconscious and tattooed once each terrace is accomplished. By the end of the story, all three have acquired all of the tattoos found on the murdered Ethiopian. Along the way, the cleric Salina falls in love with the agnostic Boswell, testing her 40 year dedication to the Church. Asensi puts perhaps (and perhaps not) a fine point on the misogyny of the Vatican in detailing the shabby treatment of Salina. This is my only quibble with the book’s tone, the same one I have with Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent and India Hill’s Queenmaker. The tone is not so much revisionist (not at all) as it is browbeating, prompting me to think, “Okay, I get the point.”

The book’s end poses a much larger problem than tone with the depiction of the paradise inherited by completing the challenges of Purgatory. The story ends on a bright and shiny note that rings just a bit flat. But perhaps this is my fussiness and my sour grapes for not having the opportunity to live in such a place. Overall, the novel is rich in detail and challenges the reader to conduct outside research. Such historically based fiction has a value in informing us of ancient art still worthy of study. I prepared to read this book by reading all of Purgatorio and an Internet biography of Dante as well as of Cato the Younger. It takes very little outside work to increase the overall enjoyment of this fine book.

This review was first published in Blogcritics.org

© Copyright, C. Michael Bailey, 2007